In Western Europe, travelling in winter means Christmas markets and the thrill of classical architecture under a dusting of snow; in Transylvania, I found, it meant an opportunity to see sides of Romania hidden in peek tourist season.
Sarah and I caught the train from Bucharest to Brasov. The train rushed through valleys occupied only by trees and, perhaps, wolves; the last rays of the sun turned the hilltops above into wild silhouettes. The train stopped at Sinaia at dusk. In front of the glowing ticket hall, men stood in fur hats and coats extending to the ankle. The combination of snow, dark forests and early twilight conspired to make Romania a magical landscape suited to our youthful dreaming. Tucked inside the heated train with our iPods, the cold landscape rushed into our imagination without threatening to harm us.
Almost the only patrons at our cosy Brasov hostel, we kept extending our stay.
We caught a bus to Bran on our third day in Transylvania. Unsure when to alight, we found ourselves stranded for an hour in a village of one cottage, hoping the return bus would find us. We were there for one hour and, dancing to keep warm, it was an adventure neither of us regretted.
At Bran Castle, we took pictures of the stray dogs guarding the entrance, of windows curled inside staircase and paths twisting away into the forest. I read about the history of Romanian royalty and Sarah bought postcards. Closer to the road, we looked at t-shirts with Dracula’s image and decided to visit the Haunted House and Skeleton Tavern. We had time and it was only a dollar.
We were the only visitors that day, though the scale of the Haunted House suggested it would be filled with visitors in summer. I was terrified by the moving floor, the lights playing with my depth perception and the costumed hands that reached out from every direction. Eventually, one ghoul devoted his time, instead, to reassuring me as I made my way through the remaining rooms.
The Haunted House culminated with the arrival of Dracula, a heavily accented man in a cape and cartoonish mask who chased us through the final passageway and out into the Skeleton Tavern, a pub painted with horror imagery interrupted by adverts for hot dogs and beer. Here, Dracula took off his mask and, losing the accent he had used as he pursued us through the Haunted House, introduced himself as Nick.
Nick had been born in Brasov and schooled in Ireland, an orphan at birth. At sixteen, the Irish couple he had always considered his family had attempted to adopt him, only to find the bureaucracy of international adoption resulted in his return to Romania, where he had found a job as Dracula in the Haunted House in Bran. He told us this gradually, responding to our questions about his perfect English.
Nick was pleased by our enthusiasm for Romania, though he didn’t share it. He was excited to have an opportunity to speak English again; in tourist season, queues for the Haunted House were too long to allow conversations with visitors. Many tourists, too, had their days tightly regulated by organised tours and could not have stopped to talk even on a quiet day. We, though, were young and didn’t have much to do, save drinking plum schnapps all evening and so we stayed and had a drink with Nick, who told us of his school friends, still living in Ireland or moving to London.
Travelling through Romania, adding extra nights at five euro hotels, we realised that freedom of movement for citizens of the European Union is just rhetoric for those whose jobs don’t pay enough for a ticket elsewhere. Later that night, in a Brasov bar where we didn’t know how to order a drink, an elderly language teacher sat down with us, excited to hear about England, a country he’d spent his life teaching to others.
The beauty and isolation of Romania was accompanied by encounters that ensured we both remained aware of our privilege. While we gushed to one another about wanting to stay forever, we were surrounded by those for whom it wasn’t a choice. Flying through small villages in a train branded with MasterCard logos, I could imagine how easy it was, in summer, to visit Romania without having real conversations with those who live there, who work in tourism and yet don’t earn enough to be tourists themselves.